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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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INDENTURED MINORS. People over generations have been transferring skills from one to another in some form of apprenticeship. Four thousand years ago, the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi provided that artisans taught their crafts to youth. The records of Egypt, Greece, and Rome from earliest times revealed that skills were still being passed on in this way. When youth in olden days achieved the status of craft workers, they became important members of society. (1)

When America was settled, craft workers coming to the New World from England and other European countries brought with them the practice of indenture and the system of master-apprentice relationships. Indenture derived its name from the English practice of tearing indentations or notches in duplicate copies of apprenticeship forms. This uneven edge identified the copy retained by the apprentice as a valid copy of the form retained by the master. In those days, both the original and the copy of the indenture were signed by the master and the parent or guardian of the apprentice. Most of the apprentices were 14 years of age or younger. By comparison, today most apprentices begin training between the ages of 18 and 24. The modern apprenticeship agreement is signed by the employer; by a representative of a joint management-labor apprenticeship committee, or both; and by the apprentice. If the apprentice is a minor, the parent or guardian also signs. (2)

In colonial New England, many youngsters less than 10 years old whose parents could not support them were indentured to masters who agreed to teach them a trade. This practice was legalized by the "poor laws."

Indentured servants first arrived in America following the settlement of Jamestown by the Virginia Company in 1607. The earliest settlers realized they had lots of land to care for, but no one to care for it. The Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to attract workers. Indentured servants became vital to the colonial economy.

Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom. While the life of an indentured servant was harsh and restrictive, it was not slavery. There were laws that protected some of their rights. But their life was not an easy one. The punishments meted out to people who wronged were harsher than those for non-servants. An indentured servant's contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.

For those that survived the work and received their freedom package, many historians argue that they were better off than those new immigrants who came freely to the country. Their contract may have included at least 25 acres of land, a year's worth of corn, arms, a cow and new clothes. Some servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite, but for the majority of indentured servants that survived the treacherous journey by sea and the harsh conditions of life in the New World, satisfaction was a modest life as a freeman in a growing colonial economy.

In 1619 the first Africans were brought to Virginia. With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. However, slave laws were soon passed – in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1661 –and any small freedoms that might have existed for blacks were taken away.

As demands for labor grew, so did the cost of indentured servants. Many landowners also felt threatened by newly freed servants demand for land. The colonial elite realized the problems of indentured servitude. Landowners turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery began.

Iowa has always been a “free” state. However, in the period from January, 1852 through May 1895 Dubuque County, and the city of Dubuque in specific, had indentures as recorded in the Declaration of Intent Book 4, DUBUQUE COUNTY COURTHOUSE. The following cases come from that reference.

On January 19, 1852 the William G. Lovell, the Dubuque county judge, formalized the indenture of Lawrence Cautwell, "a pauper and minor" at the age of fifteen years and six months to Patrick Fanning. Cautwell was to learn the occupation of stone cutting during his four years and six months of indenture. Fanning was to provide his youth with food and clothing and at least four months of night schooling each year. At the end of the indenture, Fanning was to pay Cautwell the sum of fifty dollars with no other wages being due during the indenture. The judge was paid five hundred dollars for writing up the indenture. (3)

Joseph Eibeck, a fourteen year old, was indentured to William H. Merrill on July 1, 1882. Merritt was to prepare Eibeck for the trade of printer or type setter. During the first year of his indenture, Merrill was to provide food, clothing, shelter and medicine. During the second year in addition to the items from the first year, Merrill was to pay Eibeck fifty dollars. The third and final year this was to be raised to one hundred dollars. (4)

Alice E. Coates, aged eight-years of age and orphan, was indentured by John Coates, her brother, to James Carr of Dubuque on August 20, 1852. Carr was to see that Alice was learn all useful and proper housework and needlework in a reasonable manner during a period of ten years. Carr was also to provide at least four months of schooling each year in addition to food, clothing and shelter. At the age of eighteen, Alice was to receive fifty dollars. (5)

Other minors indentured were: (6)

B. Baul, William; Brougham, William; Brugh, Mary; Burke, John

C. Cahill, Catherine; Cantwell, Lawrence; Castle, Ann; Coates, Alice E.; Conway, Thomas; Corbet, Catherine; Corbit, Bridget

D. Day, Margaret; Dixon, Hezekiah;

F. Fay, Mary

G. Groppia, Ann

H. Hackett, James; Hitchcock, Albert; Hoffman, John; Homer, Caroline; Horn, Hennicca; Howey, Sarah Frances

K. Kelly, Thomas; Kern, Mary Jane; Kibbler, Joseph; Kies, Peter; Kingsley, Myrta Eilalic; Krayer, Michael Lambert

L. Lambert, Frank H.

M. Moss, Nancy

Mc. McGowan, Eleanor; McGown, Hugh

P. Phillips, James; Phillips, Mary Ann; Pierce, Franklin; Plant, Margaret

R. Radford, Samuel

S. Scammer, Mary Ann; Schronen, Elmer Roy; Schronen, Myrtle Marie; Sheldon, Josephine; Shema, Thomas; Slattery, Patrick; Smith, Anna; Smyth, Abigail Wells; Stephus, Benjamin Franklin; Southwick, Edward J.

T. Tetreau, Louis; Thilman, Margaret Frances Charlotte

W. Walz, Sophia; Weston, Mary; Whalen, Nora

Z. Zannug, Christina

See: Augustin A. COOPER



1. "History of Apprenticeship," Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Online: http://www.lni.wa.gov/TradesLicensing/Apprenticeship/About/History/default.asp

2. Ibid.

3. Declaration of Intent Book 4, p. 1 Dubuque Genealogical Society

4. Ibid. p. 5

5. Ibid. p. 7

6. Declaration of Intent Book 4

Special thanks to Mary Clark for her research assistance.